A Review of
Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs
Reviewed by Adam P. Newton
Apple. Macintosh. Steve Jobs. iAnything. You’d have to be raising barns deep in Amish country, paddling the depths of the Amazon River Basin, or living on a far-flung Pacific island to not be familiar with the products made by the Apple brand. Even if you don’t use that technology, you probably have a very specific opinion about why you’ve never adopted any of those devices. I have hacker IT friends who only operate off undiluted Linux kernels, and even those folks have an iPhone or use iTunes for their digital music. And if you especially love Mac products, you’re lucky if detractors will let you off the hook by merely calling you a “fanboy” – the unlucky get told they’re members of a cult.
With his investigation into the religious ideas and philosophies that powered the big-picture worldview and day-to-day operations of Steve Jobs, Brett T. Robinson examines the life of this powerful innovator, inventor, and technological prophet. Appletopia serves as a pleasant though occasionally superficial discussion of how Jobs integrated artistic ideals into scientific exploration and marketing savvy to create a pop culture “event” in a world that’s become quite jaded toward larger meta-stories.
The book makes great hay of the concepts introduced in its lengthy subtitle. It’s no secret that Jobs attempted (and occasionally succeeded) to integrate the principles of Buddhism into how his company operated and his customers experienced his products. Anytime you hear someone rave about how “intuitive” the User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) are on a Mac, that’s because Jobs trusted his customers to utilize their common sense to operate his devices – and that’s something brought over to the West from Eastern thought.
Robinson then proceeds to provide explanations outlining how those same principles were introduced into how Apple marketed itself, its products, and its ethos. He talks about Jobs’s use of myth and story to talk about his company and what the company can do for its customers that other companies cannot. He parses a range of examples from Apple’s history, starting from the early ads like the iconic “1984” where Apple is billed as a computer that frees you from an automaton-like existed in front of an IBM computer, to the exuberant dancing performed in iPod ads, and all the way through the “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” commercials. All of these efforts serve to showcase Jobs’s beliefs and practices about the world around him through the lens of selling a computer.
Where the book veers into frustrating territory is when Robinson begins to rely too heavily upon the thoughts, ideas, opinions, and research of others. Yes, there’s nothing new under the sun, and sure, I will always support a well-researched tome, but I never thought something akin to “I’ve never heard or thought that about Jobs or Apple before.” When you have 18 pages of footnotes and a 13-page bibliography for a 100-page book, it had better be an engaging read, or it just might come across as a well-written master’s thesis.
Moreover, I quibble with the way the book’s information is presented – the arc is mostly historical in nature, rather than topical, which means we’re forced to make the connections between products and campaigns on our own. I’m a sucker for good context to the content I’m reading, but those components need to be presented coherently and with some keen insights and instruction before it can make sense to me. Specifically, chapters 2 and 3 discuss the iPod and iPhone respectively, splitting the discussion of the technology and the religious underpinnings that determine how we feel about the devices. Instead, those 2 chapters should have been combined into one chapter that discusses the various intersections between religion and technology, not a “case study” into each device and how Jobs’s beliefs and practices influenced each of them.
The book hits its stride in Chapter 4 (entitled “Technology and Religion: Where the Physical and Metaphysical Meet”). Here, the author delivers the clearest media critique of the “cult of Mac,” including appearances from Andy Warhol, Marshall McLuhan, and others. It also represents the fullest explanation of the metaphysical and religious into Jobs’s technology dreams. This good chapter also lays bare the failings of the IT compatriots – when you have good media analysis, but it’s segregated from the historical development of the technology, you’re going to arrive at a dry history with no overarching determinism.
Ultimately, Brett Robinson’s Appletopia reads more like a straight-forward marketing text with a bit of religiosity thrown in for good measure. What I wanted from this book was a fresh query into Jobs’s influences upon the development of technology, how we talk about those things, and personal insights from the author regarding technology, religion, and culture. Unfortunately, while it’s a pretty good study of the “Mac Myth” as fomented by Jobs’s love of his religious beliefs, the book merely reads as a decent primer to the way that Steve Jobs used a few Buddhist ideas to market his technology a bit differently than others.